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Reykjavík is Iceland’s picturesque capital city © Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson, Visit Reykjavík
Explore the museums, coffeehouses and music venues of Iceland’s quirky capital.
A stunning backdrop pronounces Iceland’s picturesque capital: on one side of town stand rows of prim coloured rooftops outlined by a silvery, duck- and swan-filled lake. On the other, city streets slope down to the wind-capped bay of Faxaflói and a pair of quiet, bright-green islands. The mighty ridge of Mt Esja rises in the distance, perhaps the most treasured landmark in Reykjavík. The city proper spreads out across Seltjarnanes, a peninsula whose optimal position affords (on a clear day) a tremendous panorama that extends from the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula (near Keflavík Airport) all the way up to the icy dome of Snæfellsnes glacier, a good 100km away. This incredible view – and the remarkable sky that frames it – seems an open invitation to explore the great nature of Iceland.
What sets the capital apart from the rest of the country is the presence of people, cars, and trees – all rare species elsewhere in Iceland. Indeed, appreciating Iceland’s largest town raises the question, is Reykjavík a village that acts like a city or a city that feels like a village? On the metropolitan side of things sit the Icelandic stock exchange, a massive harbour filled with sea-going ships, high-rise hotels, a stunning glass-panelled concert venue, the national parliament building, and an art, music, and restaurant scene that rivals anything in either London or Manhattan. Villagewise, the air is unbelievably clean, whales are jumping in the harbour, a church marks the highest point in the skyline, and by the second day you might start recognising the faces you pass in the street. It’s comforting to find such big-city delights in such a small and unusual package.
It’s nearly impossible to make any generalisations about the people of Reykjavík in terms of attitude, dialect, culture, or lifestyle. Instead, consider this town as the urban expression of Iceland as a whole, which is pretty diverse. One face of the city is dedicated solely to tourists, which is welcoming and sincere, if not a little overwhelming at times. Within that same grid lies the busy heart of Reykjavík where Iceland’s intellectual, financial, and cultural elite put in their serious hours. Weekends witness the outrageous nightlife for which the city is famed, but by Sunday morning, the streets are as silent as the sleepy suburbs nearby. In fact, just 5 minutes from the city centre you’ll find wide pavements, clipped grass and open gardens, single-family houses with two-car garages, and giant shopping areas connected by four-lane highways (not the party town you might have expected).